Smallpox vaccination, 1803

7th July 2020

The plan and operation to undertake smallpox vaccination in the British Empire. From The Report on the progress of vaccine inoculation in Bengal, Volume 3, by John Shoolbred, 1805, pp. 14-16. John Dobrée was appointed to the Carmarthen in 1802; it was a new ship built by Mr Williams for the East India Co. that season (Naval Chronicle). He was previously captain of the Busbridge, an East India ship owned by Samuel Dobrée, esq., for which he had obtained a letter of marque in 1796.


I cannot add this great number of patients to the register of vaccination without doing justice to the humane zeal and uncommon industry of Mr. Mason, in conferring the benefits of the new inoculation on so many of the natives in his district. Mr. Mason, very soon after the introduction of the disease, requested me to vaccinate one of his Molungies, from whom, at the proper time, he took matter for further inoculations, and has ever since kept it up with a few interruptions, arising from the necessity of his being occasionally absent from his station. The reports with which I have been favoured by Mr. Mason, evince an attention to the progress of the disease, and a discrimination of its characteristic appearances, very uncommon in a person not of the medical profession, and not exceeded by any of those who are : and have met with no one who has formed a juster estimate of the value of the new inoculation to mankind, or who places in a stronger point of view the obstacles which will always exist to prevent the natives of this country from reaping the full benefit of so great a blessing. In one of his letters, Mr. Mason, lamenting this circumstance, expresses himself in the following words:

The great obstacle to the general diffusion of the vaccine inoculation seems to proceed from the stupidity and apathy of the natives of all ranks and descriptions, which must ever disqualify them as practitioners on whom any reliance can be placed for keeping up the genuine disease; and the utmost exertions of every European in the country, even if all were zealous in the cause, could not extend the blessing to one-tenth of the Company's vast dominions in the East. This is an obstacle to which I see no possibility of applying any remedy.

I have the more willingly inserted the above quotation, because it shews, from the testimony of a most respectable, well-informed, and disinterested servant of the Company, the excellence of the plan adopted by Government, at the recommendation of the Medical Board; which, by multiplying the number of European vaccinators in every part of the country, affords, in the greatest possible degree, the only remedy that can be devised against the apathy and incapacity of the natives above noticed by Mr. Mason.

Collecting then the whole of the items in the preceding abstracts, the number vaccinated will appear as under;

At the Vaccine Stations 4456       

In other parts of the country 4210

At Prince of Wales's Island as hereafter mentioned 1000

Vaccinated, but of whom no return has been made, say 1500

Total vaccinated up to the 31st Dec. 1803 • • 11,166

Besides supplying the vaccine stations, as already stated, and promoting the inoculation from thence as far as could be accomplished, we have had the further satisfaction of successfully transmitting virus, or putting it in the fairest train of transmission, to places beyond the seas.

One of the first letters which I had occasion to enter in my book of Vaccine Correspondence, was from W. E. Phillips, Esq. temporary Governor of Prince of Wales's Island, under date the 27th of February, 1803, announcing to this Government, that Mr. Waring, senior Medical Gentleman there, bad succeeded in producing the disease with matter forwarded by Mr. Russell, after a voyage of twenty-three or twentv-four days: and that at that time they had inoculated about 10O children. I am sorry to observe, however, by a letter received a few days ago from Mr. Heriot, that, after carrying the disease successfully through about a thousand patients, they somehow or other, as he says, unaccountably lost it. It could not be for want of patients, because no prejudices against it exist there, and as the small pox has not been on the Island for several years, there could be no difficulty in finding abundance of subjects susceptible of the infection.

Our next attempt by sea was to transmit the disease to Fort Marlborough, where every trial previously made to introduce it by means of dried matter sent from Madras, had proved abortive. Successive inoculations performed on board ship, was therefore the only way by which we could hope to put Sumatra in possession of what must prove so great a blessing to that Island, where the small pox, when it breaks out among the Malays, rages with such devastating fatality as often to depopulate whole tracts of country.

This plan was, under the authority of His Excellency the most noble the Governor-General in Council, carried into effect in December last, by the embarkation, on board the Honorable Company's ship Carmarthen, Captain Dobrée, of fourteen children from the lower Orphan School, who had never had the small-pox nor cow-pox. Two of these children having been successfully inoculated before they left town, and having the disease of the sixth day, well characterised in two places in each arm, the others were to be inoculated from them in succession during the voyage. No accounts have yet been received of the arrival of the Carmarthen; but the measures adopted were such as could hardly fail to succeed in transmitting the disease to Bencoolen on the living subject.

Having accomplished this plan as far as depended on us, with every fair prospect of success, His Excellency the most noble the Governor General expressed a desire that the disease should also be forwarded to Port Jackson; but the voyage to that settlement being not less than seventy or eighty days, and it being impossible at present to procure children to undertake the voyage, in sufficient number to keep up the disease for that length of time, we have been reluctantly obliged to postpone the accomplishment of his Lordship's views till some future period.

The same obstacle exists against any proposal for immediately sending the disease to China, of which his Lordship has expressed himself equally desirous.